Graded on a Curve:
Scott Walker, Bish Bosch

From his beginnings as a pop idol working in the mode of The Righteous Brothers to his period as a smooth student of Jacques Brel to his unprecedented re-flowering as a restless, challenging avant-garde artist, there is no doubt that Scott Walker’s career has been a long and fascinatingly strange trip. And Bish Bosch, his latest record for 4AD, continues that progression, being his most extreme and often baffling statement to date. Opinions will most certainly be divided, but one thing is certain; there’s really nothing else like it.

My introduction to the name Scott Walker occurred shortly before the release of his 1995 release Tilt, but I’d already been exposed to him for years without knowing it due to his membership in The Walker Brothers. That duo’s “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” hit #1 in the UK and #13 in the US in 1966, and it’s a beautiful song that remains on the radar to this very day in large part through consistent rotation on oldies radio. That’s where I first heard it as a youngster, but from within that context it was just one fine song amongst many, and my memory is quite foggy regarding exactly when and how I connected the dots between Walker’s early pop stardom and his slowly realized total about-face as an enigmatic experimental musician.

Walker’s unusual career path has been described by some as being completely his own. And essentially that’s true. Sure, there are numerous examples of creators from across the artistic spectrum who successfully emerged from the realms of the conventional, only to end up in the deep weeds of uncompromising experimentalism; film director Nicholas Ray and writer James Joyce both spring to mind. But nobody seems able to come up with an instance of a pop icon so completely abandoning their commercial sensibility for an environment of success so blatantly the opposite.

That’s because there aren’t any. And make no mistake, as a pop star Scott Walker was completely legitimate. If success for the American-born Walker Brothers (who like The Righteous Brothers, weren’t actually siblings) was somewhat fleeting in their home country, they were huge in the UK, and Scott’s solo stuff was just as big, eventually landing him a BBC TV show. But the ride declined in the ‘70s after a batch of records that didn’t sell, and the Walker Brothers were reformed for a three album run that culminated with the very interesting ’78 LP Nite Flights, a record that presents the seeds of Scott’s second phase.

The progress continued with ‘84’s Climate of Hunter, a very worthy affair if one marred a bit by the dated production sound of its decade, and an LP that included such varied contributors as avant-jazz sax titan Evan Parker, trumpeter/composer Mark Isham, R&B vocalist Billy Ocean, and the guitars of Mark Knopfler, and Brit well-kept secret Ray Russell. While a critical success, it was his only release of new recordings in the ‘80s, and it took over a decade for Tilt to appear via Fontana in the UK and Drag City in the US. Then another decade-plus elapsed before The Drift emerged via 4AD, the label that serves as his current home.

In the period from Tilt to The Drift, Walker’s stock with a fresh generation of discerning music heads rose considerably. If it was probable that original members of the Walker Brothers Fan Club would find his descent into a foreboding, industrial-informed landscape a confusing and unattractive turn of events, they were just as likely to not even know it was occurring, and his new audience was eager to absorb everything with Walker’s name on it, even his run of unabashedly retro-pop-inclined ‘60s solo albums that began with Scott in ’67 and culminated with Scott 4 in ’69. Rather than marginalizing himself, he was instead redefined as an iconoclast; if the audience was smaller, there was no shortage of devotion and also no question of relevance.

And of course there also were the charges of self-indulgence, willful obscurity and flat-out pretention. I’m sure some even entertained the possibility of mental illness, so confounding a turn had Walker’s music taken. But the long intervals between releases did keep the derision somewhat at bay, along with allowing time for the intrigued but perplexed to come to grips with the outlandishness of both Tilt and The Drift, records at once both bewildering and riveting.

The cumulative effect of Bish Bosch makes his previous two albums feel like a barefoot walk in the park on a cool sunny morning in late spring. Okay, I exaggerate, but not by all that much. And the hyperbole is in keeping with some of the responses to his last two albums, reactions which often described his change of direction as amongst the most difficult music ever recorded. And difficult they could certainly be, but the case also seemed to be overstated a bit, mainly due to Walker’s past as an engaging and palatable performer.

It’s not hard to imagine Bish Bosch being conceived as a response to those reactions. “So you thought Tilt and The Drift were a pain in the ass. Well, how about this?” Walker almost seems to be asking. It’s no surprise that accusations of pretention have flared back up with a vengeance. And attempting to vindicate the man of the taint of these claims is pretty much a waste of time given the brazen bizarreness that is spread across this album’s running time. But how downright strange (and also exciting) it is to read of an artist in the midst of his seventh decade of life being tarred with the sin of pretentiousness, a malady that’s mainly attributed to the young.

The opening sound heard on Bish Bosch is a repeated bass drum so precise in its execution that it’s reminiscent of a malfunctioning compact disc. And on first listen the record’s contents, taking up four sides in its vinyl edition, register as utterly crazy. Making heads or tails of what’s happening is subverted by the sheer wildness of it all, Walker seeming completely off his rocker at times. Another listen doesn’t do much to change this impression, but at least knowing what to expect allows for elements of structure to begin taking hold.

Further examination finds this often formidable structure winning out over the initial perception of the chaotic and slapdash; as old Polonius once spoke of an indecisive young guy, there is method in Scott Walker’s madness. Bish Bosch ultimately reveals itself as a work of great compositional ambition, though its severities and ambiguities combine with a disregard for restraint and general good taste, obscuring its considerable achievements while simultaneously shaping the whole.

If “See You Don’t Bump His Head” combines industrial bleakness with the stressed-out and somewhat operatic largeness of Walker’s voice and tosses in a brief bit of electric guitar that’s essentially hard-rock in orientation, then the lengthy “Corps De Blah” features fart-noises which undermine an atmosphere of the ominous. And given some of the caustically delivered and absurdly comic insult one-liners found here, that flatulence could easily be mistaken for the sound of a whoopee cushion. Hell, maybe it is. One minute Bish Bosch is formulating environments remindful of Modern Classical heavyweights like Ligeti and advanced cinematic scores ala Morricone or Herrmann, the next it’s coming up with the most unusual rumination on Jimmy Durante (see “Dimples”) this writer’s ever heard. Not that I’ve heard all that many.

So, the gamut runs from an aura of impressive if twisted seriousness to tactics that beg, if being serious is actually even Walker’s intention; along the way both Alfred Jarry and Andy Kaufman came to mind, positive affinities if ones that surely revolt against attitudes of normalcy and indeed sanity. Nowhere on Bish Bosch is this straining against the sensible so explicitly enacted than on the nearly twenty-two minute centerpiece “SDSS14 + 13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter),” a bonkers tour de force which concerns Attila the Hun’s Moorish jester and the coldest sub-stellar body yet discovered in the universe.

At first what connects as an unhinged blend of obscure references and shouted put-downs scored to strands and occasional bursts of musical structure and with jarring moments of silence thrown in, becomes transformed over multiple listens (plus the help of 4AD’s promotional writing and a handy search engine) into a loose and hazy if boldly surreal narrative. While it’s far from passive listening, as it grows with repeated play the singularity of its vision becomes quite captivating. To call it pleasurable isn’t really accurate, but I can think of no other record like Bish Bosch; it’s one of the few musical documents truly worthy of the accolade original.

This is not to say that Scott Walker doesn’t have peers. It’s just that for the most part they’re not musicians. In my estimation his stubborn refusal to go quietly into the calm pastures of senior living is comparable to that of film director Jean-Luc Godard. Both are unwilling to accept the role that society generally prefers for its aging artists, instead offering late works of startling complexity and personal growth that fly in the face of the notion that maturity brings complacency and a lessening of creative vigor.

Walker began as a singer, a great one, but also a vocalist doubtlessly considered by many not as an artist but rather as a mere entertainer. If that view gradually changed as Walker’s music grew in scope, beginning with Tilt he began truly defying expectations. No longer just a singer, it was now appropriate to describe him as a composer.

Some will consider his turnabout to simply be elaborate and unwieldy protestation. But if that’s the case, he’s basically just remaining true to himself, continuing to grow and live while denying the road of obsolescence, his work raging against that one inevitability everyone shares and refusing to go quietly into the night. As such he’s the embodiment of that well-worn quote from the great Edgar Varèse: “The present-day composer refuses to die!”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A- 

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